What a rough week for sports fans: Today, just seven days after boxing icon Muhammad Ali passed away at age 74, the hockey world lost Gordie Howe — famously nicknamed “Mr. Hockey.” Howe was 88 years old and in declining health after suffering a series of strokes in 2014.
What Ali was to boxing, Howe was to hockey: one of the most acclaimed players of all time, and rightly so. After breaking into the NHL with the Detroit Red Wings in 1946, Howe went on to play a staggering 25 seasons in the Motor City before retiring in 1971 at age 43. By the following year, he’d been inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame.
Howe was everything you wanted in a hockey player. He was big — six feet tall, 205 pounds — and put his size to good use, becoming one of the most feared players in the game for his rough, tough, and at times dirty style of play. Rival players let their guard down around Howe at their own risk; he let nobody off the hook. And it worked: He was one of the most successful offensive players the game has ever seen.
Howe’s impact on the Red Wings continued long after his playing days (finally) came to an end. Kris Draper, who won four Stanley Cups in his 17 straight seasons with the Wings, remembers well the impression Howe left on him when they first met.
“For me, being a Detroit Red Wing and sitting in that locker room, early in my career, seeing Gordie Howe walk in to the dressing room — the presence that he had was incredible,” Draper said. “[After] the first time that I met him… I remember calling my dad right away, telling him that Gordie was just in the locker room. That’s one of the greatest hockey players of all time.”
Draper credits Howe’s presence with underscoring for young players the profound responsibility that came with wearing the Winged Wheel.
“He probably didn’t realize this, but it’s amazing how he impacted so many of our careers at young ages,” said Draper. “Guys like myself, Chris Osgood, Kirk Maltby, Darren McCarty, Martin LaPointe — we were all lucky to be sitting in that locker room to see how Gordie carried himself amongst the fans and that impacted a lot of us early in our careers.”
Howe’s longevity set him apart. Playing 25 straight seasons with one team is an achievement that will likely never again be matched. And remarkably, after two years of retirement, Howe returned to the ice in 1973 at age 45 to play for the Houston Aeros of the WHA, alongside his sons Mark and Marty. The three Howes played together for six seasons in the WHA, including two years with the New England Whalers. In three of those six seasons — at age 45, 47, and 49 — Gordie led the team in scoring despite competing against players who were 15 to 25 years younger.
After the WHA folded in 1979, the New England Whalers joined the NHL as the Hartford Whalers, and Howe decided to return to the league for one final season with his two sons. Howe played all 80 games and was chosen for the All Star game, held in Detroit that year.
That game became one of the most iconic and memorable moments in Howe’s storied career, a full circle ending to his life in hockey. Detroit greeted Howe with a seven-minute standing ovation to mark his 23rd All Star appearance and fifth decade of competition in professional hockey. (Also present was Wayne Gretzky, who idolized Howe and would go on to become the only player to break Howe’s record as the NHL’s all-time leading goal scorer.)
Howe remains the NHL’s all-time leader in games played at 1767, 138 ahead of the still-active 44-year-old Jaromir Jagr. He also holds the record for being the oldest player ever to suit up in an NHL game at 52 years and 11 days old.
“A guy that played into his early 50’s which is — I mean, I thought I was in good shape. I’m 45 right now and there’s just no chance,” Draper said. He doesn’t think Howe’s record will ever be topped.
In 1997, at almost 70 years old, Howe took one final curtain call, skating on one shift with the Detroit Vipers of the IHL. He is the only player in history to compete in six different decades of professional hockey.
Howe was hockey royalty, revered within the game to a degree that only a few ever matched.
The NHL has had dozens of great hockey players, Draper said, “but there’s only one who is called ‘Mr. Hockey,’ and that really sums up the respect that everybody has towards Gordie Howe.”